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Picking Up The Pieces

Jay McCarthy, famous for microparks, now must wade into the business of public schools. (photo by Matt Quinn)

Buffalo School Board election was a slippery business

After filing my report last week on the school board election, I should have known I was a marked man. That just comes with the territory for a guy in my line of work—showing up at places uninvited, asking the kinds of questions that cause the music to stop and the ladies to excuse themselves to the restroom—but I wasn’t prepared for the repeated attacks delivered to my home address. When you threaten my family’s safety, you’ve crossed a line.

I, of course, was still on the mend from the injuries I had suffered when I came home from work on the evening of April 23. I’ve circled the date with a red Sharpie in my black book, to remind myself when it was that I slid out of control across the entranceway on a slick campaign mailer sent from a mysterious group calling itself Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA), and listing 640 Ellicott Street, 4th Floor, Suite 8, in the Innovation Center of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus—the date my world turned upside-down.

Every day since my story hit the street last week, more and more of these hazards came flooding through the mail slot. Ingenious, really, to employ US Postal Service to deliver these cleverly disguised attacks. Bombs and anthrax are one thing, but who recognizes the threat contained in an unassuming eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch glossy full color card stock flyer? And yet, when the surface of these mailers makes contact with the tiles typically used in the entranceway of a hundred-year-old Buffalo house, there is less friction than if you were to drop an ice cube into a hot Teflon pan.

So it was as I climbed the front stairs, still wincing in pain from the painful bruise on my coccyx that hadn’t healed since the 23rd. Beyond the doorway sat the lethal campaign literature, camouflaged beneath various other junk mail encouraging me to change my car insurance, sign up for a credit card, or have a new roof put on my house by a fully insured contractor with references and the lowest rates in town. I was distracted by our cat, who came limping toward the doorway, her hind foot in a bright yellow bandage and head obscured by a bright purple cone meant to keep her from licking at the gauze.

It’s not the kind of thing you see every day, and in this moment of compassion I was distracted enough to step on the pile of mail. I did a full split, and as the pain tore through my groin I felt the lights going out. The last thing I remember was the stunned look in the cat’s eyes, and the suggestion of a smile breaking across her furry face.

Back at it

When I came to, the cat was scratching on a new flyer sent from Ellicott Street, from ERNA, urging us to vote for Jay McCarthy because Our Kids’ Futures Depend On It. It said that McCarthy was fighting to get Buffalo’s schools the money they deserve from the federal government. It pointed out that he was a lifelong Buffalo resident and a SUNY Buffalo graduate who understands the value of quality public school education. (Which may be the case, but it’s also a bit of a stretch when you consider that McCarthy spent his youthful school days at St. Mark’s, Nardin, and St. Joe’s, as I later learned.)

As I struggled to my feet, I realized I was dealing with a bunch of thugs ready to play hardball. Doubtless these goons were sending out similar mailers in the various other voting districts across the city, cramming their slick literature through mail slots in an effort to elect Kinzer Pointer, Phil Lomax, and Vivian Evans—although they denied supporting Evans to a Buffalo News reporter, which is something that is contradicted by the fact that one of my informants had already slipped me glossy eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch evidence to the contrary.

Lucky for me, I can always fall back on the friendships I made, and the protection I earned in my younger days by performing in a band at various cookouts and backwoods mud bogs thrown by biker gangs, bootleggers, and “alternative” farmers. But what about the rest of the registered voters, whose only mistake was to have shown up at previous school board elections, thereby landing on a mailing list that had fallen into the hands of ERNA and was being used by this shadowy national group to influence our local democratic process? Granted, we’re only talking about like five percent or less of all the registered voters in the city, but these are my brothers and sisters. One thing I learned from the biker kingpin I’ll call “Snake”—since that’s his real name—is that you don’t leave a brother behind. He taught me that, as well as the right way to open a bottle of beer with a cigarette lighter.

I decided I could do one of two things. I could try to drag them all out into the light by writing more blog posts and stories telling Artvoice readers that all these apparently grassroots mailers were not the result of some groundswell of support from within the community. Rather, they emanated from a well-funded entity tied to hedge fund groups that seek to have a fertile area in which to plant more and more charter schools run by outside investors that will receive public funds with the promise to educate our children.

I could either do that, or simply buy a mailbox. But if there’s one thing I learned after 9/11, it’s that no distant group is going to frighten me into giving up my way of life. The moment I buy a mailbox will be the moment they win. I knew they’d be sending more mailers, and I said to myself, “Bring it on!”

They brought it on

In my neighborhood, the flyers kept coming. One, a big mock check from the US Department of Education for $700 million made out to “New York’s Kids” with “VOID” stamped in red. This was meant to blame the current school board for denying millions to children by voting to take a closer look at charter school expansion. Yeah, it would be denying millions to private charter school companies as well, but why split hairs when you’re trying to stir up emotions?

Another read, “Buffalo Schools aren’t working. It’s time for a change.” They said that Jay McCarthy was fighting for the change our schools need. As the Buffalo Niagara Partnership began shooting mass emails out to everyone on their extensive contact list, it became clearer and clearer that again we were in a school board race that would be held outside the traditional election cycle on the first Tuesday in May, catering to a tiny sliver of voters who would execute their civic duty by pulling a lever in the booth (or by filling in an oval on a paper sheet) based on virtually no knowledge about the candidates. Probably the most important thing in such an election is name recognition. That’s the tactic that was employed by ERNA, despite the fact that our education law prohibits spending over $25 on any one candidate without that candidate’s approval. But what do quaint little local laws mean to a well-funded group that only rented an office in the BNMC for one month? They sent mailers, hired street canvassers, and solicited phone canvassers—and probably other stuff too.

The payoff

Despite their efforts, ERNA came up short gaining a seat for Pointer and Lomax. They get partial credit for Evans, whose campaign they at least partially supported. But their big success would have to be in the North District, where Jay McCarthy beat Lawrence Scott and Patricia Devis. McCarthy, to his credit, raised more money on his own than either of his opponents, and there’s some reason to think that Scott and Devis may have split the vote against him.

I gave McCarthy a call the morning after the election to congratulate him on his victory and do a little interview. He’d slept in, and was pretty tired after spending the last few days going door to door. It was probably one of the few times I’ve ever talked to him outside the context of a bar, and the thing is, the guy is a good talker and a good bartender.

I told him I’d given him a hard time about all the ERNA stuff in last week’s story, and he acknowledged that with good humor. He said that he faced a lot of flak from folks as he went door to door. “Some wanted to chop my head off,” he said. “But you know, it’s good to hear all that stuff. It’s like with the dog park…”

McCarthy likes to talk about the dog park down by the water in LaSalle Park that was his vision. He worked hard on that to bring into reality, and lots of people enjoy it. He’s still a young guy and you’ve got to say he’s enthusiastic. He flat out swears he has no idea who ERNA is or why they latched onto him as a candidate.

As hard as all the public scrutiny was, he looks back at the race as one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences of his life. Now, he’s about to wade into the free-for-all known as Buffalo School Board meetings. One can only hope that his genuine sense of enthusiasm will remain intact, and that he’ll approach all the issues about to come his way with similar gusto. It’s bound to be a steep learning curve, and he’s going to have to show up prepared for class—because after all the flyers have made their way to the recycle bin and the tired slogans have faded from memory, our city’s children are depending on it.

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